Like the Coming of the Dawn

I walked into the University church, prepared to sit through another time of worship in which I could only have minimal involvement. Another day in which I would have to guess at what the speaker was saying, and sing hymns while only recognizing the tune to which we sang. I’ve gotten used to it, and can now pay attention to or ignore whatever is being said around me at will. But I don’t think I will ever enjoy the fog of separation my lack of understanding creates, and I have come to appreciate just how much like sunshine communication and understanding really are.

The congregation stood for the closing prayer of Sabbath School, and I waited patiently for the Spanish prayer to be over. I almost jumped with surprise when I heard not ‘Nuestro Dios,’ but ‘Dear God’ instead. I stared with shock, at a very European looking man speaking English with an accent. For the whole time preceding the sermon, I was feeling apprehensive, because of the possibility that he might not be preaching. However, my fears were not realized, and I had the delicious pleasure of hearing a sermon preached my own language.

That church service crystallized for me just how much I’ve become accustomed to not really being a part of what’s going on all around me. Certainly my language skills have grown at an amazing speed during the last two months, but my Spanish of sixty-four days has a very difficult time comprehending the meaning of someone else speaking the Spanish they were born to. Every day is a reminder that I am different.

I often tell people here that every Friday I have English class and sometimes a test, but each day is a test in Spanish for me. A test of understanding. A test of speaking. A test for my courage and self worth. I can no longer depend on excellent scores in school, not even if I do everything I can to pass. Right now, that’s just not a reasonable expectation. To realize this, is to lose a significant part of what I have previously thought of as who I am – a person largely defined by what I could accomplish.

In the past, I had often shut myself away from other people by choice, but no longer. Now my isolation is born from my inability to communicate anything of real weight even if I wanted to. After two months of being surrounded by a foreign language, I can understand more of what people around me are saying, but am severely handicapped in my capacity to respond, not only by my pea – sized vocabulary, but by the insecurity which that tiny vocabulary produces. Before, I may have been concerned with saying something wrong in English, but now  in Spanish, the inhibition to express myself is far greater. Life for me here can change just as easily as the fickle weather in New England, all because of the words.

At school I may be laughing with friends over a hilarious joke, which we can all share, and five minutes later be turning my face away and hoping no one will notice the tears threatening to spill down my cheeks. Why the dramatic change? The words I didn’t understand. I might have copied down everything my teacher wrote on the board, and even attempted to read and understand some of those notes, only to be able to write nothing more on the test than my name, my class, and the date. What caused this to happen to a student such as I, with a record of A’s and B’s behind me? The words of a language I don’t fully understand.

The separation caused by these irritating unknown words is a unique situation to be in. Nearly every moment I am conscious of a determined mist that forces itself between myself and others, a fog that rolls in every morning, thick and seemingly impenetrable, reluctantly retreating each night with the quiet of my English speaking brain, but when I wake up again, the fog returns, looking as unforgiving as ever. The encouraging characteristic about fog is that sunshine has a way of making it disappear.  It does, however, take time to dissipate.

I have long stories to tell around single Spanish words and startling experiences of being rescued again and again by God in this struggle to learn. But the daily miracle, the silent growth in my brain of learning a new way of communicating with others is so quiet and unobtrusive, I usually don’t realize that it’s happening at all; it’s like the coming of the dawn.  New words distinguish themselves to me daily.  The fog is disappearing. I’m already getting excited for the day when I can walk into the church, the school, the circle of friends in conversation, and find that the fog is gone, and in its place is all sunshine.

Emily Merwin

Written in 2010 from Chile